Putting history on the page

December 9, 2014

To mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, Deborah Roberts discusses the legacy of Communist author Howard Fast.

BORN IN 1914 in New York City to working-class immigrant parents, Howard Fast became one of the most prolific and popular writers of his time, producing more than 80 works of fiction, drama, essays and screenplays. The strongest of his works dramatize struggles against racism, exploitation and war profiteering--books and stories that both entertained millions of readers and introduced them to left-wing politics.

Fast's first published writing appeared during the Great Depression and the Second World War and included novels and biographies set at such high points of American history as the American Revolution, the Civil War and Reconstruction. He was still actively writing for several more decades and had books on the bestseller lists into the 1990s.

In his 1990 memoir Being Red, Fast tells how he first encountered radical ideas as a teenager working for 25 cents an hour in the New York Public Library: "One day, arranging books in the library, I came upon [George Bernard] Shaw's The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Communism...the clearest exposition of the subject I know of."

Howard Fast
Howard Fast

He notes further, "I think I read somewhere that Shaw had so named his book to excite the curiosity of men, and I had also heard that he believed women to be more intelligent than men--a belief I share."

From his years working in the library, he became a voracious reader. Explaining the early development of his radicalism, Fast credits pamphlets and books he found on lower Fourth Avenue in New York City, displayed on the "hundreds of open stalls, thousands of books." He continued: "[F]or 40 cents I bought a battered copy of Das Kapital by one Karl Marx...The Communist Manifesto, which I bought for 10 cents, a worn pamphlet, was full of brimstone and fire and much more to my taste."

Around the same time, Fast was greatly impressed by Frederick Engels' Origin of the Family and John Reed's Ten Days That Shook the World. He joined the Communist Party (CP) in 1943, having already been active for several years in and around the John Reed Clubs. He participated in demonstrations and spoke for the party at political gatherings in New York City.

His literary career continued developing through several years when he actively supported the politics of the popular front. Absorbing the CP's politics of the time, Fast's early political outlook reflected a kind of "social patriotism," rather than revolutionary internationalism, a contradiction that only deepened with the outbreak of the Second World War. During the war, his active membership in the party continued despite his employment by the Office of War Information and writing for Voice of America.

BY 1950, the U.S. postwar political climate had shifted considerably rightward, symbolized by the imposition of the Taft-Hartley Labor Relations Act of 1947, which represented big business' successful mandating of controls and prohibitions on labor's autonomy. One of Taft-Hartley's most important provisions banned workers who had ever been in the Communist Party from being elected to the leadership of their unions.

Because he was a union activist and political radical, Fast was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and was eventually convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to name names and provide records of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. He was imprisoned for three months at Mill Point Federal Prison, and while there began writing his best-known novel Spartacus.

The legal apparatus under which Fast was prosecuted and jailed predated the McCarthy era--HUAC was created in 1938 by a Democratic-dominated Congress. But the provisions and sanctions of HUAC and its Senate counterpart, the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security (SSIS) weren't applied or imposed consistently until after the Second World War and the changed postwar mood.

The most important feature of that changed mood was the intensified anti-Communist fervor that came to inform domestic police agencies and, along with the FBI, worked in tandem with U.S. politics at many levels. By the late 1970s, the original and overlapping mandates of both HUAC and SSIS had faded, and both programs ended. But the long-term damage done to the civil and political liberties of the American people by these laws cannot be exaggerated.

After being released from his three months in federal prison, Fast was blacklisted by major U.S. publishing houses, making his books virtually unpublishable in the mainstream until he began using pseudonyms and resigned from the party in 1957. Fast successfully circumvented the blacklist by self-publishing his books, including Spartacus (1951) which sold very well despite the blacklist.

In 1960, the release of the film version of Spartacus, featuring Kirk Douglas in the title role, signaled the end of the Hollywood blacklist, and its 1958 paperback republication by Crown Books the end of Fast's own banishment from the publishing world.

During the early 1950s, Fast continued speaking frequently for the party and writing for the Daily Worker. In 1954, he was awarded the Stalin International Peace Prize, Sympathetic critic Eric Hoberger called Fast:

[A] prolific radical novelist who championed the cause of America's common people...He was the one truly popular American writer to remain loyal to the Communist Party, until 1956 when Khrushchev's so-called "secret speech" on Stalin's crimes and the Red Army's crushing of the Hungarian revolution, led three-quarters of the membership of the American Communist Party to quit.

UP TO the point of his resignation from the Communist Party, Fast's books were bestsellers in Russia and throughout Eastern Europe. After his resignation, Fast's next book was The Naked God: The Writer and the Communist Party, a memoir published in 1957. In the book, Fast acknowledges the deep disillusionment concerning the party that he and many others experienced.

The book is less an apology for mistakes he made while still a member than Fast accounting for his long inability to leave sooner, despite his long-term doubts.

Outside the Party, Fast quickly returned to writing and publishing popular historical novels with a left-liberal political outlook. Historian Alan Wald argues that the too-quick denunciations of Fast on both the right and the left distorts his real history:

[T]he view of Fast as an opportunistic money-maker hardly explains why he produced explicitly Communist books such as Silas Timberman, The Story of Lola Gregg and The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, published by his own press [Blue Heron] and paid for by his own resources, during the height of the Cold War when no commercial publisher would touch him.

Wald notes further that Spartacus was the first self-published bestseller in recent history, and acknowledges as well what he sees as Fast's main artistic failing, in spite of the great popularity many of his books have enjoyed:

Such a career might be a cause for celebration among those who would like to see fiction with a radical perspective reach a broader audience...One can recall some stirring episodes and vivid portraits, [but] much of his writing appears two-dimensional and lacking in subtlety.

In 1939, Fast published his first major political novel, Conceived in Liberty: A Novel of Valley Forge. By the 1990s, his books had sold 8 million copies, including Citizen Tom Paine, Freedom Road and Spartacus. Spartacus later became a popular film featuring Douglas--Dalton Trumbo, a friend of Fast's and later one of the Hollywood Ten, wrote the script for Spartacus. Freedom Road, about the plight of African American former slaves during the Reconstruction era, became a TV mini-series, featuring a performance by boxer Muhammad Ali in the lead role of Gideon.

Fast's historical novels are both popular and well worth reading. They are quick-moving and with strongly defined characters, set at key points in American history. The Last Frontier, published in 1941, is about the 1878 flight of 300 Cheyenne Native Americans from their confinement in Oklahoma to their tribal home in Wyoming. The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, published in 1953, about the immigrant anarchists framed for murder in 1923 and executed by the state in 1927 despite a worldwide campaign to save their lives.

Critic Andrew Macdonald has noted that Fast's reputation suffered for the notoriety of his politics, but also that he has "never been given full credit for his contribution to the essential tales of American culture, the American Revolution and immigrant acculturation."

It is to Fast's great credit that he refused to turn the names of his friends and comrades over to the McCarthyite forces demanding them, that he paid three moths of his life for that refusal, and that he never became a professional anti-communist as other writers and artists of his generation did.

Further Reading

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